Remains of 500 guillotined people could be buried in Parisian chapel wall, say experts after discovering bones

Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry, playwright and early women's rights activist Olympe de Gouges and revolutionary architect of the Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre may be among those interred in the chapel walls


                            Remains of 500 guillotined people could be buried in Parisian chapel wall, say experts after discovering bones
Citizens of Paris, headed by the National Guards, storm the Bastille prison in an event which has come to be seen as the start of the French Revolution, 14th July 1789 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The French Revolution was and still is among the most radical revolutions in French history. On July 17, 1789, all hell broke loose when Parisians stormed the Bastille prison, releasing prisoners, stealing weaponry and gun powder, and wreaking havoc in the city. They had been at their wit's end and were fed up with the country's incompetent ruler Louis XVI, his incorrigible wife Marie Antoinette and the rest of the nobles in France. At the time, the state was a monarchy, characterized by high taxes that seemed to fill the royal treasury and only go towards funding grand parties at Versailles, instead of feeding starving citizens. 

The revolutionaries that pioneered this progressive event managed to completely transform their country and how it was being run. The centuries-old governance through absolute monarchy fell, giving way to the modern system of democracy. However, with the revolution came mass fatalities, most of them comprising the nobility and treacherous people who met their end on the guillotine, the killing machine of the revolutionaries. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were also among those that were beheaded by this deadly contraption.

Between June 1793 and July 1794, nearly 17,000 death sentences were passed in France, of which more than 2,500 were Parisians and many of who were guillotined. With such a large death count, historians have often posed questions regarding the site of the guillotined victims' remains. For years, they presumed that the bodies of those who perished during the revolution were buried in the Parisian catacombs, a large ossuary under the city. But a shocking discovery has now proven that theory wrong.

French troops storming the Bastille during the French Revolution. The prison represented the hated Bourbon monarchy and Bastille Day is now celebrated as the beginning of the revolution (Getty Images)

The walls of the Chapelle Expiatoire, a historic chapel built by King Louis XVIII who ceased the throne after the monarchy was restored in 1814, were looking odd in some place, the administrator, Aymeric Peniguet de Stoutz noted. After noting the peculiar anomalies, archaeologist Phillipe Charlier was called in to take a professional look and examine the oddity.

According to a Guardian report, Charlier inserted a little camera in the wall cavities of the columns in the lower chapel and discovered bones in four chests, the remains of French Revolution casualties that were possibly interred into the walls of the chapel. The discovery caused a stir among the French who had also theorized that the remains of those guillotined lay in the catacombs. Experts now believe that at least 500 victims of the guillotine were buried in the walls of the chapel.

Engraving of French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre (1758 - 1794) as he stands at a balcony and makes a forceful point with one raised hand, France, early 1790s (Getty Images)

The discovery also squashes historical theories which suggest that the bodies of some famous victims including Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry, playwright and early women's rights activist Olympe de Gouges, Duke of Orleans Louis Phillipe, the father of France's last king, Louis Phillippe I, and revolutionary architect of the Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre were buried in the network of catacombs.

The chapel is a classified monument located in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, France, and is dedicated to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who were once buried in that spot. In his report, Charlier wrote, "The lower chapel contains four ossuaries made of wooden boxes, probably stretched out with leather, filled with human bones, There is earth mixed with fragments of bones."

Cartoon showing Maximilien Robespierre (1758 - 1794), the French political leader who presided over the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution guillotining the executioner after 'all of France' has been put to death (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The discovery of these interred remains has only added to the mystery surrounding the remains of les guillotinés. The 19th century Chapelle Expiatoire stands on the site of the la Madeleine, an old cemetery located not far from Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine was installed back in the day. La Madeleine, which was one of the four cemeteries built to dispose of guillotine victims, had been a mass grave that received 10 or more bodies nearly every day and was closed in 1794 when it reportedly ran out of space.

Following Louis XVIII's ascendency, he ordered the remains of his brother Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to be relocated and buried at the Saint-Denis Basilica and instead built the Chapelle Expiatoire in their memory. The orders he issues said that "no earth saturated with victims [of the revolution] be moved from the place for the building of the work."

Inside the Chappelle Expiatoire (Getty Images)

For years, Historians had believed that the remains of more at least 500 casualties of the revolution (mostly aristocratic) and revolutionaries like Robespierre had been transferred to another cemetery and then the catacombs that sport a plaque marking where they were reburied. Peniguet de Stoutz has requested that the chapel be examined further. 

"Until now, the chapel served only as a monument to the memory of the royal family, but we have just discovered that it is also a necropolis of the revolution," he said in an interview with Le Parisien. He deciphered hints in the letter written by Louis XVII, and thus the unusual construction of the chapel walls piqued his curiosity, per the Telegraph. "I cried when the forensic pathologist assured me he had seen human phalange [feet and hand] bones in the photographs," he added.

This discovery was made in 2018 but had been kept under wraps for the time being because of political turmoil and protests in France against the government of President Emmanuel Macron. The main concern was that protesters could potentially target Chapelle Expiatoire with the belief that the bones are remains of aristocrats.

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